Leadership does not happen in a vacuum

“Leadership does not happen in a vacuum; leaders are always acting within a larger organizational and social context. A leader who possesses the “right” competencies has no assurance of success; I’ve seen dozens of leaders who were competency tested to extremes, matched to roles, and failed — social context almost always trumps psychological poo-bah when it comes to leadership success. Leadership is messy, it is relational, and it happens in millions of interactions every day around real work. The lesson for leaders? If you want to be a great leader, the “box ticking” approaches your organization takes to develop you aren’t likely to help. You have to understand the social system you’re working in first.”

–What Separates High-Performing Leaders from Average Ones https://hbr.org/2015/11/what-separates-high-performing-leaders-from-average-ones

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Good to Great EcoSchools: Confronting the Brutal Facts

O to grace how great a debtor, daily I'm const...
O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be! (Photo credit: “The Wanderer’s Eye Photography”)

I’d like to return to an insightful book on management, Good to Great by Jim Collins, which I referred to in a previous post. There’s enough rich concepts in this book to mine further, so I will return to the book in future posts.

One of the interesting findings presented in the book is that good-to-great organizations confront “the brutal facts of their current reality.” They allow for such confrontation by creating “a culture wherein people have a tremendous opportunity to be heard and, ultimately, for the truth to be heard.”

How many classrooms, schools, or school districts, have such cultures? All too often, students, teachers and principals discover themselves smoothing things over for the sake of appearances, pasting shallow gossip, jargon, and PDs over symptoms, rather than speaking to the deep-seated tensions that prevent them from best serving one another and their school community.

I deliberate in my own mind quite a bit about governance and decision-making processes, as I believe that anyone who thinks about the insoluble problems of public education must inevitably do, but especially in relation to the concept of decision-making in the face of complexity, with an eye towards both equity and effectiveness.

So when I came across an organizational system called Holacracy through a post from Ev Williams, creator of Blogger and Medium, I grew excited, and I found Holacracy fascinating. However, as I am not a principal of a school, I don’t quite have the leverage to fully implement such a system.

But there was one concept that Holacracy forwards that I found could be something I could implement with my own teams: the idea that “sensing and processing tensions” should be conducted transparently and for the purpose of continuous improvement.

I developed a protocol from this idea called “Processing Tensions,” which I welcome you to try out and adapt as you wish.

If something like a protocol rubs you the wrong way as too formal or constrained, I’ve still found the very idea of viewing “tensions” as something positive and constructive, rather than negative, to be empowering. Reframing this concept has helped me to steer through some obstacles in my work with other professionals. Sometimes having those “challenging” conversations with other adults can be a productive and positive experience in the eventual outcome, despite the fear and anxiety I might feel in the lead up to them.

So let me wrap this up by connecting the idea of processing tensions to “confronting the brutal facts of reality” as an organization. The reality is that if we want truth to be heard, and for the gap between what is and what could be to be bridged, then we cannot simply rely on the benevolence of our formal leaders. We must develop transparent mechanisms or practices for those tensions to be addressed and sublimated, and a culture of psychological safety in which those conversations can occur.

How can you work to develop such practices in your school or organization?